After a less-than-prompt departure from Lusaka (the bus was scheduled to leave at 5 a.m….it didn’t leave until 8:30 a.m.), we arrived in “The Warm Heart of Africa.”
Malawi’s moniker is not just a marketing ploy to increase tourism—it’s true. The warm and welcoming hospitality greeted us even before we arrived in Malawi.
Irene Lubker, a member of Second Presbyterian in Richmond, is from Malawi. She helped the youth group learn (a very small amount) of Chichewa and other Malawian customs. It was quite a surprise to receive an email from her and she said that her niece lived in Blantyre and she would be happy to meet up with us.
Even though our schedules conflicted and we were not able to meet up, it was comforting to know that there were hospitable people waiting for us in Malawi.
We arrived in Lilongwe, the capital, late in the evening on 28 February, so we just went straight to the backpacker’s lodge, Mabuya Camp. Mabuya Camp is a popular spot for the overland trips because it’s the only backpacker’s lodge that can accommodate the large converted lorries that transport the campers.
It was jammin’ at the camp’s bar, with some resident curio artisans and vendors hanging out as well as reminding us to find them at the market the following morning.
The next day we set off to see the auction floors of Malawi’s primary export—tobacco. It is a bit of a coincidence that Second Pres. has such a strong connection with Malawi, whose cash crop is tobacco, and Richmond is home to Phillip Morris, king of tobacco; of course, Richmond’s tradition of tobacco dates back to the era of Pocahontas.
Well, what happened when we arrived at the auction floors seemed to be a recurring theme for our trip: We were a week too late to see the auctions in progress, so we basically toured empty warehouses. We were not even allowed to take photos. Oh well, the employees at the auction floors were pleased enough to give a tour to two inquisitive tourists.
We certainly learned a lot about Malawi’s tobacco industry. Not surprisingly, China is a huge player as one of Malawi’s main importers. China has a hold on almost every single African country, funding for major infrastructure projects, in return for access to natural resources. But this discussion is for a whole other blog post.
After the tobacco floors, we headed back to cool down with a dip in the pool. We didn’t feel like browsing the curio market because we would have to tote them around with us, and we heard that the market scene in Blantyre was better.
The next day we boarded a bus around 8 a.m., so not too early to what we’ve been used to, for Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear at Lake Malawi. We had heard that there was a petrol shortage in Malawi, but we did not understand why—if there is a petrol shortage—would you leave the bus running for over one hour. It seemed like a waste of a precious commodity.
We finally arrived at Monkey Bay, the jumping off point for Cape Maclear. We found out from Tony, one of the owners of the Mabuya Camp, that we had to take a matola (a truck that carries people to the cape) from the Monkey Bay stage and it should not cost more than 1,000 kwachas for two people. We must have been tired from traveling because we ended up paying an exorbitant amount; even when we asked the others in the truck what they paid, they all said they paid whatever we were paying. LIES! Extorting money from the mzungu tourists, haven’t seen that trick before…
The scenery and sunset at Cape Maclear quickly put that trick behind us. It was absolutely breathtaking. Mountains fall away into the horizon on the lake, the water is so clear and full of vibrantly colored fish. We were famished so we headed to the “most expensive” restaurant in all of Cape Maclear, and it was quite delicious! We of course had to sample some of the local fish.
We were also treated to some spectacular lightning when a storm swept in. We didn’t have enough money to pay, but the owner, a crazy white Namibian, said no problem, we could swing by in the morning and pay then. We went back to our lodge and went to bed while rain fell on the roof, one of my favorite sounds. It was also the first time I had seen rain fall since mid-November since Kenya is still in the throes of the long dry season.
The next day began with some early swimming in the lake, although some people advise against swimming in Lake Malawi because of the risk of catchingschistosomiasis, also known as bilharzias, a nasty parasitic disease from freshwater snails. But rest assured, no risk of bilharzias at Cape Maclear, but just to be sure, I doused myself with DEET-mosquito repellent, which also works against the parasites.
After a swim and breakfast, we had to leave paradise to head back to civilization; since we had experienced the unreliability of transport in Malawi, we decided to leave as early as possible to ensure we would get to Blantyre by evening.
We ended up riding in the bed of a lorry (pick-up truck) for three hours under the baking sun. And I had no qualms about slathering the sunscreen on, even if I was being stared at the entire time, but no matter how much SPF I rubbed in, I still got an awkward burn between my mid-calf and foot. It looks like I have a skin socks on that are a shade darker than the rest of my legs. #africangirlproblems #mzunguproblems
While on our way to Blantyre, we sped through a fantastic thunderstorm via matatu. We were able to see Malawi’s beautiful landscapes. We also witnessed the reality of the petrol shortage crisis in Malawi. We had to refuel about two hours from Blantyre, and the queue was about 50 cars deep. There was almost a riot when an MP jumped the queue to fill up; our driver said that people were shouting at the MP because it was the government’s fault for the lack of fuel.
After another long commute, we arrived at Doogle’s Backpacker’s Lodge in Blantyre, conveniently located next to the main bus stage. It had a great open-air bar and patio, and lots of dorm space, but we were not having luck with accommodation, so we had to camp.
Did you know that Carlsberg, a Danish beer, has a brewery in Malawi? In Blantyre, to be exact. Say no more, we were ready to tour it! Only problem was, they only offer brewery tours on Wednesday, and we were there on a Sunday. I can understand being closed on Sunday, but only offering tours on Wednesday? Absurd. They would see a lot more business if they didn’t limit their tours so much. Instead we just recharged by the pool and tried to figure out ways to get to Harare, Zimbabwe.
Remember that theme of public transport being unreliable? Turns out that the buses to Harare only left on certain days, one of them Saturday and one being Tuesday. We were hoping for a Sunday evening or Monday morning bus…our plan was disintegrating. As much as we love “The Warm Heart of Africa,” it was time for us to leave!
With every setback we had, we managed to find the silver lining. Ben has a “there has GOT to be a way to get there” attitude and is an adamant supporter of public transport. Thus, he did some research and was able to find out that there might be a bus that leaves tomorrow, if it shows up. We hoped for the best and lo and behold, the ZUPCO bus did not fail us!
Even though a lot of what we wanted to do in Malawi was derailed by timetables, lack of petrol, etc., we still enjoyed our time in “The Warm Heart of Africa.” It had certainly changed a lot since the last time I visited, but unless the current president can get this fuel shortage and inflation under control, I’m not too optimistic about Malawi advancing to the BRICS summit any time soon.
Next stop: Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana (yes, all within 48 hours of each other).